Albert Isidro-Llobet always wanted to be an academic. Now he works for GSK. Here he shares his story.
Guest contributor Albert Isidro-Llobet
I joined the R&D division of GSK as an organic and medicinal chemist in 2012. Before that, I completed my PhD at the University of Barcelona and a 3-year postdoc at the University of Cambridge. After my undergraduate degree, I decided to work in organic and medicinal chemistry to contribute to the synthesis of new medicines. Eventually, I wanted to become a Principal Investigator (PI) in academia and it seemed to me that the best course would be pursuing a second academic postdoc.
Albert in his lab
However, I found myself asking questions which will sound familiar to many scientists in that stage of their career. What if I eventually found out I didn’t want to, or couldn’t, be a PI? Would I be employable outside of academia? Besides, I was also keen to explore new challenges. Eventually, I decided another postdoc would be too similar to what I had already done.
During my time at Cambridge, I had attended talks and conferences with speakers from industry. I enjoyed the science and enthusiasm they shared. I saw that partnerships with academia were encouraged, which could be useful if I ever did decide to return to the public research world.
In terms of getting a job in industry, there is plenty of great advice around. I would recommend attending events (conferences, career events, or workshops), and talking to as many people as possible – most scientists love to talk about their experience, and many have also been in your situation, so don’t be afraid to ask.
It is also worth doing your homework before attending any networking event: determine who you want to talk to, and approach them as early as possible. Another way to make the most of conferences is to try and present your own research when possible; this will improve your communication skills and make you more visible. It’s also good to be able to summarise your research career in one or two simple sentences that show your passion, and its relevance to industry. Finally, I found that mock interviews at the careers service of the University of Cambridge were a great way to get constructive feedback, and writing and submitting speculative job applications was also a good exercise.
After a number of applications, I successfully interviewed for a research position at GSK. I’m currently part of a team of around ten medicinal chemists working in early stage drug discovery. From the start of my time with GSK, I saw that my employers not only cared about my performance but also about my personal development. For example, my manager arranged a series of 1:1 meetings between myself and research group leaders in the company to discuss scientific projects and career opportunities. I was surrounded by excellent and passionate scientists eager to share their knowledge.
My day-to-day job necessitates teamwork and we often have to present our results to collaborators from a variety of backgrounds. We’ve learned how to effectively communicate with diverse audiences, transmit our enthusiasm for science, and create and maintain fruitful collaborations.
There are, of course, differences between industry and academia – you can’t always pursue the research you’d like to in industry, for example. That said, in my experience there’s always a degree of flexibility and constant calls for new ideas, which is very motivating. Naturally, when a project has to stop for strategic reasons it’s not great, but it can open up opportunities to work on several new projects, helping to enrich your experience and skill set.
Industry and academia can also be very similar. They both offer the opportunities to attend high-quality seminars and listen to internal and external speakers – I’ve been lucky enough to see the Nobel laureates Aaron Ciechanover and Sir Paul Nurse at GSK. I’ve also found that GSK encourages us to present at international conferences, publish papers, and take on management opportunities through teaching and supervising undergraduates and PhD students. Transitioning from academia to industry has shown me that there’s more familiar ground in industry than I expected, more exciting new challenges than I hoped for, and more than ample opportunity to conduct high-quality research. My skillset and my confidence as a scientist have grown, and, most importantly, I’ve enjoyed the process.
Albert Isidro-Llobet is a medicinal chemist at the R&D division of GSK. He holds a PhD from the University of Barcelona and was awarded a Marie Curie Intra-European fellowship to undertake postdoctoral research at the University of Cambridge. His main research field is peptide therapeutics.
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I would like to thank AGreenMonster for these great questions for discussion. I am going to answer these from my perspective, which is from a life science company. I welcome anyone to give their feedback as well. In fact, if any of the readers out there feels like they have a lot to share, I would be happy to host your article on my blog so that you may provide more details. Just drop me a line.
The question from me would be, what would you say is the biggest difference between academic research and industrial research? You say you don't have the same independence- how does that translate day by day? Does that mean that you're given a project and are told what procedure to do at every step? Or do you mean, that you told you need to work on x and get y in whichever manner you can?
To answer this question, let's first list some of the pros about working in an academic setting. You get to ask your own questions, questions that are interesting to you personally. No one is telling you what to do, how to do it, or for that matter keeping track of your time in any way. As long as you are productive and moving forward, you are doing well.
In contrast, in a company, you may have to work on a project that doesn’t interest you much. You may have to work on a product that you don’t actually believe is a good idea. You might be told to get something to work that really does not work and no amount of tweaking will get to work well. Some scientists I know became frustrated at having to develop products that are think no one wants or that do not require creativity, such as line extensions (a product that is continuation of an existing product, for example, a PCR kit with a slightly different buffer). It really depends on the company of course, but it is likely that you will have a couple of projects, and one may be really exciting but the other may be something you wish would go away.
Because I work in life science, all of our research revolves around developing products. So what I find to be the most unsatisfying aspect of my job is that sometimes I wish I could ask questions about the sample or the system, but I can’t. I want to know why these two samples from these two sources are acting differently. I want to know why this person’s blood works and the other one doesn’t. I want to get real answers and not just yes or no. You learn to push aside those yearnings…or, find an academic lab looking for a cool project to assign to an upward bound college student interested in science and you work on it together. That’s what I do now.
Day by day, depends on the company. I worked in a company where no one kept track of me ever. But, my schedule was always updated in Outlook so that if ever someone wanted to know where I was at any time of day, they could see it. And since in large companies you are typically in meetings for 4-6 hours every day, you really don’t have time for long coffee breaks anyway or for catching up on the literature. The few hours you do have to get work done, you anxiously grab them, go to the lab and shut the door, or put on headphones (even if you aren’t listening to anything) and analyze data, pretending you aren’t in a cubicle surrounded by 50 other people.
Does someone tell you what to do step by step? No. Unless the scientist is not competent to make their own decisions on what procedures to do, micro-management in the lab should not be an issue. I have worked with a PhD scientist who was not capable of deciding what experiment to do next and needed to be told. This was a drag. She didn't last long. Of course, it’s always a good to discuss the results and bounce ideas off other people. And lab meetings are used to troubleshoot and help each other out. But most PhDs or senior scientists are expected to be able to work independently.
At an interview I had, the scientist talked about how the deadlines are different in academia and industry. Would you agree and what does it really mean in "every day" work?
I think maybe what they mean is that the deadlines are more often and usually with short notice. Like when a grant or an abstract is due, you know about it well ahead of time. And if you miss it, the impact is mainly on yourself. (And of course the people in your lab depending on you to pay their salaries.)
In Industry, it's not unusual for last minute projects to be thrown at you with very little time to turn it around. Never mind that you are in the middle of an experiment or some other deadline. Something new is now priority. There can be a lot of unexpected work that may not always be your own, but when the boss asks you to do something, you drop everything and do it. Sometimes opportunities come up and you have to grab them. Marketing gets an opportunity to host a seminar and send a scientist to speak. They need a willing scientist who communicates science well and enjoys meeting people. Should you do it? Definitely. Getting out there and showing that you're a team player and can represent your company is critical to getting high raises and promotions. You want to accept those last minute challenges and opportunities to help the team.
Other deadlines include product launches. A product launch is a team effort. The teams involved are production/ operations (the people who will buy the chemicals, make the solutions according to your formulas, bottle the solutions, and package the components and put them in a box), marketing (the people who make sure the entire world knows about the product, designs flyers, imagery, maybe a logo, and a cool box, go to trade shows and basically be the cheerleader for the product), and you- R&D- the inventor of the product. I am going to write up a longer post about this subject in the future. But for now, the product launch is a complicated and coordinated effort. You CANNOT miss your deadline or you will screw everyone up. Marketing has booked the dates for the email blasts and banner ads, they’ve paid the $50,000 for ads to appear within the first ten pages of the next four months of Science. They’ve booked the booth for the scientific conferences where they will promote your new product, at $20,000 per show. Operations has cleared their schedule to manufacture your product- making other people wait, maybe even putting other products on backorder, so that your buffers are made and sitting on the shelf in a box by launch time. All of these things are happening in a very tight timeline and who is really the central player for all these events? R&D. It’s a lot of pressure, let me tell you.
Having gone through this process on the marketing and R&D side, I can tell you, I have lost much more sleep being responsible for the R&D of a product than for the marketing of it.
I realize perhaps it's impossible to describe, but what I'm trying to understand is how different it is to work in an industrial laboratory vs academic laboratory in a practical sense. So far the things you're saying seems like an environment I wouldn't mind working in. I like team work, I'm not sure that I'd mind that my ideas are owned by the company (surely productivity is awarded still?)... Not sure yet about flexibility (depends where that flexibility is limited exactly).
Yes- productivity is rewarded. It always has been for me. There are always a lot of complaints about the fairness of rewards in biotech and the rating system for promotions and raises. However, if there is one thing I cannot complain about, it is the rewards of being a hard worker. People know who the best people are and they will fight to get you working on their projects. They will beg to work with you. I always made a case to get my favorite R&D person working on the projects I knew I would be marketing that year. In a practical sense, the difference is really only in what you work on and how you approach the problem. The questions are different but the way you work through them is the same. As soon as your product launches, you are on to the next thing.
One thing that really interests me however is being "current" on the latest things in science. I like knowing what is the latest science "question" of the year. I don't need to be doing that work, but I like the environment of hearing about these things. Are industrial scientists encouraged in attending conferences, etc? I understand though that people don't publish as much in industry (for obvious reasons) so I'm not sure how they approach this aspect exactly.
Me too. I LOVE being able to stay current in a wide range of subjects. And working in life sciences biotech means that you really do have to stay on top of a lot of different subjects and methods. You can’t stay on top of everything but your base of knowledge becomes so broad that you know that if needed, you can give yourself a crash course on any subject and be ready to speak about it the next day (or two) in front of a group. If you are thinking of leaving the bench but want to stay on top of what’s hot in science, and you love to help people, then you may enjoy working in technical service.
Yes- industrial scientists are strongly encouraged to go to conferences. I would beg my R&D scientists to go when I was in marketing. More often than not, the people I worked with did not want to go. They avoided travel as much as possible. Maybe this has to do with some scientists being introverted. Others do not want to ever be put into a "sales" role, such as talking to people in a booth at a conference. It is great to have the scientists out at conferences talking to people at the posters, representing their own posters, and being part of the marketing of the products they invented. Who knows the product better than you the inventor?
I know the scientists working for me thoroughly enjoy the time they spend at conferences and they come back totally pumped up about their work and with so many new ideas. Marketing usually pays for conferences, as they have the big budget, so ask marketing to pay for you. I only pay when it is a strictly science conference with no booth duty, such as a Gordon Conference.
At the end of the day, I'm wondering what I'm expected to "give up" from academic industry...
You will give up pursuing your own ideas for the ideas of the company. But there are ways around that, through collaborating with academic labs. It is a great way to support undergraduate research and satisfy your curiosity while keeping your product launches on time.
I think there are ways to fulfill whatever you are missing in your career, whether that is teaching or writing or being part of the creative process. In industry, there is abundant opportunity to work on the other teams and learn how to do the marketing or the production or QC. All of these skills can only enhance your personal marketability. Most CEOs have worked in many different departments before they got to the top. They didn't just stick to one thing. Neither should you.
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